Interview with Chef Deanie Hickox-Fox of Ubuntu - Napa Sonoma
Antoinette Bruno: What inspired you to pursue cooking professionally?
Deanie Hickox-Fox: It was really important for me to find something that I was passionate about. I knew I’d like something that was physical and active; I didn't want to be bored sitting in front of a computer. I was really drawn to cooking professionally because it’s a creative process that is still deeply rooted in tradition.
AB: How do you keep abreast of the latest trends?
DH: I read a lot of cookbooks and menus, and I go online.
EV: Does having a vegetarian restaurant affect how you make your desserts? Is your process different from a meat-serving restaurant?
DH: No, aside from not serving gelatin, the dessert process is not that different from any other restaurant. We use modern techniques and special alternatives like thickeners and emulsifiers. I don’t feel limited in any way because the product we have is so phenomenal. Most of the ingredients we use we grow ourselves.
AB: What’s the toughest thing you’ve had to do in your job?
DH: I think it’s really hard to manage people—cooking is the easy part.
AB: If there were one thing you could do over, what would it be?
DH: I never had the opportunity to stage, so that is something that I would have liked to do.
AB: What advice would you offer to young chefs who are just getting started?
DH: Work hard and be willing to sacrifice.
AB: Do you recommend culinary school to aspiring chefs? Do you hire chefs with and without a culinary school background?
DH: I recommend the California Culinary Academy for pastry. The pastry program there is a lot shorter than the savory one, and I think there is nothing wrong with on-the-job training. Culinary school costs a lot of money. For me, I liked the fact that I had a foundation before entering the workforce. School gave me that.
AB: How are you involved in your local culinary community?
DH:. We are working with the Oxbow High School [a local school] on sponsoring a garden and developing cooking classes. We are also starting to do a lot of charity events. For example, we participated in a benefit for the Congo in Los Angeles.
AB: What is your proudest accomplishment?
DH: Opening this restaurant.
AB: What does success mean for you?
DH: That I’m happy and challenged, and the people I cook for are challenged.
EV: What goes into creating a dish?
DH: I work better when I have product in front of me. The garden changes every day, so I work with what we are given. I think about flavor combinations and flavor profiles, and how they work together; it’s an organic process. For example, my Spring Flower Pot dessert is a terracotta pot filled with lavender custard, bee pollen crumble, and rhubarb and lemon crème, topped with 20 flowers from our garden.
EV: What is your philosophy on food and dining?
DH: Seasonality and respect for the ingredients and produce that we have, plus attention to detail.
EV: What is the biggest challenge facing your restaurant?
DH: The biggest challenge is trying to manage the day-to-day operations of the restaurant while working on the cookbook and writing recipes for magazines at the same time. It’s challenging to juggle all of that when you really just want to be at your restaurant and cook.
EV: What trends do you see emerging in dining/restaurants these days?
DH: With the economy as it is, I see a heavier focus on comfort foods—clever takes on comfort foods. We do plays on comfort foods with, for example, our cheesecake in a jar, which is a re-imagined cheesecake.
EV: What is it like to work with your husband?
DH: It’s good. We’ve worked together for the last seven years straight—it just works for us. We worked at Manresa together for so long that we have a lot of similar influences, which has definitely helped us create seamless, complimentary menus.
EV: Are you a vegetarian?
DH: I was a vegetarian when I first met Jeremy, but I haven’t been for the last six years. He was a meat cook at Rubicon.
EV: What made you want to open a vegetarian restaurant?
DH: It wasn’t our concept, it was Sandy Lawrence’s. We met her and thought we’d enjoy working with her. The opportunity was too hard to pass up.
Chef Deanie Hickox-FoxUbuntu
1140 Main Street
Napa, CA 94559